Thursday, August 30, 2012

Institutional Reform vs. the Student/Parent Entrepreneur

Institutional reform, by definition takes years to implement at any level. So when you go to the principal in October to point out some serious deficiencies in your child's second grade math class, he or she may respond by telling you all of the wonderful improvements they are about make in second grade math, reforms that will start next year, but be fully implemented the year after ... and you quietly note that by that time your son or daughter will be starting fourth grade. What to do? What to do?

At the college level, your son or daughter (or maybe you yourself a few decades ago) sits in a introduction to physics class and realizes that  Professor DD is a lousy teacher. So you go to the Chairman of the Department and, if you're lucky, he or she admits that he's had a lot of complaints about Professor DD, but the good news is that he's hired a brilliant young scholar who will start teaching introductory physics next year. Great. Now what to do? What to do?

My obvious point is that institutional reforms take time to develop, and even more time to implement -- which means that Principals and Chairs and Deans and Provosts think in the long-term; whereas, by definition, a student's time frame is bounded by the courses he or she is taking this semester. Whereas our academic leaders talk about major reforms that will be fully implemented within five years, students (even entering freshmen) expect to be gone in five years.

This is not to say that Principals and Chairs and Deans and Provosts should not develop institutional reforms or that they are able to make substantial changes in weeks rather than years; it just means that a student's best chances for improving his or her own situation will come from his or her (or their parent) making creative uses of the resources immediately at hand.

Yes, sometimes the grass is actually be greener over there, but you're enrolled over here; so you have to figure out how to bring some of that greener grass back here -- which usually takes extra effort and extra time and extra creativity ... but that's the price of doing better in the life you are actually living.
  • Example -- working outside the system
    A group of freshmen realize that Professor DD is a dummy. After notifying the Chairman of their insight, they form a study group, and buy a couple of extra textbooks which they share that seem to cover the topics better than Professor DD and their current text. Then one of them gets a really bright idea. Remember that super smart grad student, the skinny one with the raggedy pants? Yeah, let's buy him all the pizza he can eat three times a week in exchange for his tutoring us three times a week ... and we feed him one slice at a time. As we learn, so shall he eat ... :-)
  • Personal example -- exceptions within the system
    When I was an upper sophomore at NYU way back in 1960, I looked at the curriculum I was scheduled to take during my next two years .. and it didn't make sense. There were too many "hands on" courses about current engineering techniques that prepared us for jobs that were immediately available. But the engineering profession was changing rapidly back then (as now). I thought it made more sense to learn more fundamental science and math that would enable us to quickly pick up any new techniques after we started working.

    So I went to my Dean, made my case, and demanded that the curriculum be changed. He smiled a very strange smile that I didn't understand until after I graduated. Then he said that he was not about to change the curriculum, but he would allow me to substitute lots of courses for the current requirements since I had made such a persuasive case for myself. I left his office in triumph!!! ... and the year after I graduated, he announced a wholesale revision of the curriculum -- making exactly the same changes that I had demanded, changes that he was already putting into place, but changes that could not go into effect for all students until two years later ... I was an "exception" ... correction: probably I was a "guinea pig" ... which is why he had such a strange smile. I can imagine him thinking of me as large brown talking guinea pig who had just walked into his lab and "demanded" to be the first subject of his next experiment ... :-)
Bottom Line.
Parents and students cannot wait for institutional reforms. Of course they should support well-conceived reforms with their taxes, by volunteering their time to help put them into place, etc, etc, etc. But the reforms will invariably be implemented "after their time" ... which means that parents and students have to become entrepreneurs -- identifying and exploiting creative opportunities by using the resources at hand right now. Sometimes this means spending more time to learn what they really need to learn by working outside of the system ... and sometimes it requires the help of a high ranking "insider" who can allow them to be an "exception" from within the system. The "secret" is to identify the reform-minded "insiders" who understand the shortcomings of the current system even better than most parents and students.

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